Since he landed one of the most coveted jobs in Hollywood -- directing the next installment of Star Wars -- reactions to J.J. Abrams have been all over the map. I believe Abrams is exactly the right person at exactly the right time to take over that galaxy far, far away. Here's why.
You can’t compare J.J. Abrams’ work on Star Trek with what he’ll bring to Star Wars. Trek was a complete reboot, a recasting of the classic roles, the birth of an alternate universe with similarities to the original but which isn’t beholden to it. It was a reinterpretation.
Star Wars is a completely different animal. This isn’t a reboot or a new interpretation. It’s a sequel, the continuation of an existing saga. Abrams isn’t taking Star Wars and making it his own. It’s not even his story. He’s here to direct the film, to guide it from the page to the screen. And he’s smart enough to know the difference between taking command of an entire franchise and shepherding a single movie that’s just one part of someone else’s much larger story.
Let’s face it: Lucas’ work on the prequels was appalling. He may have created the universe, but somewhere between the original trilogy and the prequels, he lost sight of everything that fans loved about it. There’s a big difference, after all, between imagining a story worth telling, and telling it in an entertaining way. Lucas had some interesting ideas for the prequel trilogy, but zero ability (or interest?) to convey those ideas in a way that audiences would enjoy. (Even worse, he had complete autonomy over his empire, so no one could tell him how awful what he was making was.) J.J. Abrams is not only a good storyteller, he’s a life-long Star Wars fan. And if there’s one thing we can discern from his body of work, it’s that he knows what George Lucas doesn’t: what fans want.
We go into a Star Wars movie with certain expectations. We want to be delighted, to be thrilled, to experience a full range of human emotions and experiences. We want to be transported to other worlds, other places, by fun, engaging characters. We want spectacle on a grand scale, but a filmmaker smart enough to know that spectacle alone is not enough.
And we want a story that isn’t spelled out for us in advance.
A wise man once said that “stories depend on surprise.” If we know what’s going to happen beforehand, the story loses its power to impact our emotions and dig into our souls. I understand why some people read spoilers; they want to know that their investment of time in a story isn’t going to be wasted with an inane outcome. Or maybe they just can’t stand the wait. But in spoiling ourselves, we commit a terrible crime against ourselves, robbing ourselves of a potentially powerful experience.
J.J. Abrams gets that. He’s known for running a set that’s not just closed, it’s cloaked. Bad Robot carefully and strategically controls every piece of artwork, photography, video, and music that’s released in advance of his films, to ensure that the audience doesn’t know exactly what to expect. Abrams has, on numerous occasions, gone so far as to feed/leak false spoilers to bloggers as a kind of misdirection. All because he values that first-time experience of seeing a film above all else. As he should.
George Lucas has the opposite problem. For each of the prequel films, we were drowned with so many film stills, clips, toys, books, music, and other details well in advance of the movies’ release dates, that we knew almost everything that was going to happen in each of them. All that was left for us was to connect the dots between all the things we’d seen beforehand, and let’s be honest: none of those dots were connected with anything resembling good drama.
Case in point: in the very first trailer for The Phantom Menace, we were introduced to the idea of Anakin Skywalker being “the chosen one.” Imagine if instead that plot point had been saved, kept fresh to be dropped on us at a key moment in the movie. It could have carried so much more of a wallop, so much more dramatic power. Instead it carried no weight whatsoever, and while it was a tantalizing plot point with loads of potential in that first trailer, it was ultimately all but forgotten as the trilogy unfolded.
George Lucas gave the world a great gift when he created Star Wars, but he then nearly killed it with his lifeless, paint-by-numbers prequels. What Star Wars desperately needs is a creative renaissance. An infusion of fresh blood by someone whose entire life was influenced and changed by the classic trilogy, and who can not just restore its former glory but bring it fully into the 21st Century with exciting storytelling, compelling characters, and spectacle enhances the experience instead of overwhelming it.
There are plenty of creators, writers, directors, and others out there who would fit that bill. But J.J. Abrams is a heck of a gutsy choice. Lucasfilm has done more than just service the fans by hiring a geek-friendly director; they’ve shown just how smart their new regime is. Because Abrams has his finger right on the pulse of what’s worth experiencing in modern genre storytelling.
Images: Disney and Lucasfilm (composite)